Silver Linings Boutique Country Hotel is a renovation project in Bamboo Sea Village in Hufu Township, Yixing County, which is home to a well-known scenic spot in Jiangnan (South Yangtze River Area).
Different from the romantic perception most people have about country life on hillside, the village seems out of place in such picturesque surroundings. Only few of Jiangnan folk houses —traditional folk houses that used to be common in Jiangnan — are left.
The owners’ building is no exception. Many years ago, when it was first built, in order to get more floor area, the building was completed with a rather “unique” height-to-width ratio. Before the owners’ current commission, the building had undergone a massive expansion.
The massive volume brought by successive expansions came into sharp contrast with the texture of countryside. Renovation should not be a procrustean alteration against a pre-determined, idealistic image of spaces. Rather, renovation requires one to explore and feature fine properties of the original construction, while addressing the inconvenient ones.
Architects had fences made from locally sourced bamboo wood and installed them onto the façade to disrupt the elevation’s continuity and to relieve the tension of the building closing up on a smaller front yard, and also put up an uninterrupted front wall with simple elements — a white streak on a rubble masonry, capped with bamboo-based composite slate. The wall clearly yet subtly sets the building apart from its surroundings. It become an intimate space where village folks will come by to sit down and chat in the sun, as opposite to the former parking lot.
The load bearing brickwork in the construction offered little room for renovation, so any attempt to reshape atmosphere and experience in the stairwell must be done without structural change to the walls. Architects installed several bookshelves there and cladded the roof and bottom of the well with mirrors, creating an illusion of infinity where the bookshelves and stairs seem to continue forever, which has an effect of elongating the well.
Great emphasis was given to the individual identities of windows and hence the identities of different rooms. The original cookie-cutter windows and ill-conceived balconies were transformed into openings of various sizes to match different identities. In the process, two landscaping techniques of Chinese garden — framed scenery and blocking scenery were applied. Bringing into rooms cobblestones, handmade cloth and furnishings that were designed on site and made of locally sourced old logs allows the hotel rooms, which may look similar to one another in pictures, to offer their own rich, natural yet very different experiences to the occupants.
The terrace at the north side of the building is not able to support anyone, due to the load bearing limit of the first-floor ceiling. To warn off customers, architects put up a fence inspired by Mei Ren Kao — a traditional bench-railing in Chinese gardens. architects also covered the terrace floor with a thick layer of sand and gravel and with a wooden grid. Among them and through the ceiling, a tree is growing freely.
In Jiangnan area, there is a traditional, cost-effective way of making plaster by mixing lime with straw or paper paste. During work, architects floated the idea of replacing paper paste with bamboo shred after it was treated. Since bamboo shred is harder than straw and paper paste, after several experiments with artisans involved in the project, architects find out how thin and long the bamboo shreds should be and with what proportion to make the plaster elastic and strong enough, without being too rough. Compared to a pure white plaster, wall covered with the bamboo plaster feels soft and textured and provides a strong sense of local identity.
As part of a small-scale renovation project of a vernacular building, the design of the new Silver Linings Boutique Hotel was nothing ambitious and did not aspire to bring back the original look of countryside which is completely gone. The building shares some of the features of a typical country homestay hotel, including its small scale, its position in some countryside surroundings, and its owners being born and raised in the local village.
But the building is also not that typical in that its shape does not fit in the popular perception of a “traditional countryside”. Among others, architects’ work focused on three things: reshaping the relation of the building with its surroundings, responding to the expectations of the owners and their guests for accommodation, and adjusting and optimizing the building’s functions.
The overall design followed a logic that is simple and clear, even conservative. But it made the remodeled building contract strikingly with the one before.
In dealing with vernacular buildings, it is believed that one must address regional and cultural identities. However, in this prosperous Jiangnan village where different kinds of architecture co-exist, incorporating the traditional and vernacular features directly into the design language will instead make the building outlandish.
For this reason, much of this design for the Hotel seems “anti-homestay”. This is the hotel taking a stance in real countryside surroundings. It is also part of architects’ attempt to find an alternative to conventional country hotel design.